It is dark outside and after driving for eight hours I am on the last stretch before arriving home. My wipers streak back and forth across my windshield to keep the wet, snowy sleet from obscuring my view. Every time I meet a transport, the road disappears for a fraction of second as the giant truck and trailer roars by and leaves me in a wave of slush, sleet and mist. Meeting one transport from time to time would not be so bad but the trip is all the more nerve-wracking when I come upon a convoy of trucks. I hold my breath and just hope for the best as I slow down in meeting these huge trucks. They are coming at me at about 100 kilometres per hour and only a few feet away.
I am driving with a friend, and as the cars, trucks and transports shoot by in the opposing lane, he describes our situation as similar to playing Russian roulette. Every time a truck blinds us, we can only hope that there is a clear road beyond the wall of slush and snow. Our car would need half a kilometre to make any last-minute turn or stop on the icy surface under our tires.
Driving in northern Ontario this winter has been a great challenge. During cold spells, when temperatures dipped to minus-30, the sand and salt simply blew off the solid ice sheet that covered the asphalt. It became even more dangerous when temperatures rose to zero Celsius. The heavy slush meant even more ice formed on the road when the thaw inevitably ended.
The drive between Northern Ontario and Toronto during the Christmas holidays is probably the most dangerous voyage I experience. The crazy part is that, most winters, I take this trip once or twice a season. Even crazier is the fact there are people out there who drive these highways on a regular basis. I have travelled on autostradas in Italy where heavy traffic flies along at an average 140 kilometres an hour. When accidents happen on these roads, it is not uncommon to find 40 or more vehicles rear-ending each other. I drove in traffic in a rental car on a highway leading out of Bangkok, Thailand. Driving laws there are mere suggestions for the millions of cars, trucks, three-wheeled taxis, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles that share the rough and congested roadways. However, I actually felt safer on these busy European and Asian roads because most major highways were divided and I knew that I had traction under my tires. Northern Ontario’s Highway 11 corridor in the winter is like an ice rink most of the time and we think nothing of driving it. The reality of this situation is scary.
Even the winter roads that are made of ice and snow along the James Bay coast are safer than Highway 11 in Ontario. At the very least, there is less traffic on the winter road and most of the time the speed is not great. The roads are now made wider than in the past but the speeds are still kept down by the fact that the surface is quite rough. Potholes, bumps and uneven sections abound on even the best-kept winter road and drivers are cautious or they will quickly ruin their vehicles.
I consider myself a good driver. I learned from others who have driven in the worst winter road conditions all their lives. I also ride a motorcycle, which I think gives me a better perspective on how to drive defensively. You cannot make a mistake on a motorcycle. When it comes to driving on a northern highway in the dead of winter, a safe drive includes an equal amount of skill and luck. Often no matter how much skill you possess accidents happen anyway because there are just too many variables to contend with.
Some of the main rules I drive by include: make sure my vehicle has winter tires; always bring another driver to break up the long trip; make plenty of stops during a long drive; and, don’t tailgate others. Remember to slow down and I mean really, really slow down in bad weather conditions and keep a long distance away from others in case anything should happen up ahead. The best bit of advice I ever got was to stay home when the winter weather is just too severe. Isn’t it better to postpone a trip, delay a meeting, or just cancel out of an engagement than to play Russian roulette with a transport truck on a sheet of ice?